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Sven Fund: Sowing the seeds of profound impact

Sven Fund on Loving What You Do, Nurturing Relationships, and Scaling in EdTech

Who are you? What can you tell us about Sven?

I am now 50 years old. It was a big surprise when I celebrated my 50th birthday last year, realizing how fast the last decades have passed. I have been living in Berlin, Germany since 2008. Prior to that, my family lived in Switzerland for a few years. I studied for about a year and a half in the US, so I have experience living in several different countries. I have two grown children, a son and a daughter, and I currently live with my partner and our dog, Charlie, in a house in a suburb of Berlin.

How did you end up working in the academic and scholarly publishing industry?

I would say it was more or less accidental. I always wanted to work in this field; I aspired to be a journalist. During my last three years of high school, I started working as a freelancer for newspapers, which were still printed on paper back then. I covered local reporting, doing whatever was needed as a student. Then I realized that having more substance would be beneficial if I didn’t want to focus solely on local festivals and small company meetings. I began studying political science, history, and communication. I always wanted to be a journalist until I discovered that it is a cyclical business. You see the same events recurring on an annual or election schedule, particularly in political communications. This realization led me, by the end of my PhD, to explore the business side of media. I started a corporate development role at Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate home to Penguin Random House and many startups worldwide.

My last project there involved a busy phase of restructurings, including the sales process of what became Bertelsmann Springer, now known as Springer Nature. There were numerous permutations and private equity involvement. I started to enjoy the business during the sales process I supported. After the sale, I moved to a managing director role of a small legal entity in Basel, Switzerland. From there, I held various roles within Springer, initially managing the architecture business in Switzerland, then overseeing a mathematics publisher with ties to the US, in Boston. My career evolved, and in 2008, I moved to Berlin for a role focusing on the Humanities and Social Sciences, significantly different from STEM, Natural Sciences, and Medicine. By then, I had been in the industry for about 12 years and found it impossible to leave.

What's your primary goal? What do you hope to achieve within this industry?

What motivates me each morning is the constant opportunity and necessity to learn. This aspect is genuinely exciting. I have many friends who are lawyers or medical doctors, who value stability and find progress in their careers in different ways. I, however, thrive on the unknown elements of my work. Even though I know many people and understand various structures and business models, I am always learning something new each day. For instance, just today, I had a lunch conversation with a friend involved in classical music streaming, who asked me how classical music streaming works in public libraries. I had no idea, but I want to find out. This drive to learn keeps me engaged and fresh.

What do you like most about this segment? Is it the learning aspect?

It's surprising how small this industry is, valued at around 25 to 30 billion dollars in the academic publishing market. Education, of course, is much larger and varies greatly from the US to Europe, South America, Asia, and beyond. Despite its size, it is possible to understand how academic publishing functions. The industry is small enough to grasp yet exposes you to numerous new trends. For instance, digitization in the media industry began with academic publishing. If you look back to 1996 or 1997, when Elsevier and Springer launched their digital businesses, it started with just PDFs online. The industry has made significant progress since then.

In the end, we contribute to something truly important for societal advancement. Other industries may claim the same, but in our case, it is genuinely true. Education and enlightenment play crucial roles in elevating individuals and nations from difficult circumstances, providing understanding of how the world and technology work. This educational aspect is incredibly exciting. Additionally, the technology piece is vital.

✨ Pearl of wisdomWhile the industry may not always be the earliest or most successful adopter of the latest trends, it is still impressive to see numerous small companies and startups driving the industry forward. These innovators push market leaders to change, making this segment distinct and exciting compared to many other parts of the industry.

What do you think are the most important leadership skills that you've developed over your career?

I think that's the most difficult question because who am I to say? You should probably ask my team or people who have known me for the last 20 years. Nevertheless, trying to answer this question, I think I'm quite predictable in my leadership behavior, and I feel that is a good thing. When I look at my bosses in different situations, what I appreciated most was understanding their expectations—not just in terms of measurable targets or written evaluation sheets, but also in how to develop and uphold values while working together. Discussing values and not just deliverables is really important to me.

My team knows when something truly excites me. We have a stand-up meeting every morning at nine o'clock, a practice we kept from the pandemic. Usually, once or twice a week, they say, "Here's something that will make you really happy, Sven." So, they obviously know what makes me happy. Isn't that great? And conversely, if something makes me grumpy, they know it in advance and take precautions. So, I would say predictability is an underrated leadership skill.

The rational component is one thing; going in the right direction or not is another. The emotional element, I think, is also something leaders have to work with.

✨ Pearl of wisdom Being expressive and ensuring the other party understands you is the only way to create alignment. Obviously, you can't behave like a complete idiot in most situations, so you should control your negative emotions. Nevertheless, predictability and clarity in what you can deliver and what you expect at the same time are really important.

What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievements to date?

I was once thrown into the deep end right after starting a job at a small Springer subsidiary. I remember, back then, I was 30 years old. The CEO of Springer, called me one morning and said, "Sven, welcome on board. It's great to have you. You have six months to turn the company around. If you don't make it, be prepared to close down the shop." Obviously, you can't turn around a company without a plan. It's not just about cost-cutting. What I really enjoy is putting strategy into action, understanding the market—which I didn't initially, as I was new to academic publishing—gathering information, filtering relevancy, and then implementing a plan step by step. It gives me great satisfaction to see that, a year later, the plan worked out, perhaps not 100% as planned, but at least in the right direction.

I also learned a lot about human resources management during that phase. I love mentoring people, and it gives me great satisfaction to see them grow because turning around a company is never a one-man job; it's always a team effort. You can't do it alone, and you can't mess it up alone, which is also good news.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge has been dealing with bureaucracy, structures, and regulations. While I understand the need for structures and regulations that make sense, I find it hard to follow those that don't. I'm not a good follower in that respect, and I think many people in academic publishing share this sentiment because this industry involves a lot of intellectual engagement. Just following blindly is an issue because it requires switching off your brain, which can be a real problem for me. You can ask my tax advisor—they understand what I'm talking about. Sending documents in the correct format is not my strongest suit.

What do you enjoy most about your role and what not so much?

What I enjoy most is probably the opposite of bureaucracy—entrepreneurial freedom. I like trying new things, logically assessing whether something makes sense, and then going for it. Accepting learning experiences, which in my experience are mostly positive when done in a controlled way, is crucial.

✨ Pearl of wisdom I find it challenging to cope with scarcity or limited resources, especially in startup situations. It can be really frustrating when you have to prioritize beyond a certain point where it becomes painful for your mission. If you want to achieve something as a company and see that the resources provided by investors or other sources are insufficient, it can be difficult.

Currently, I'm running a very small startup with six people at Reviewer Credits. We have clear expectations and are moving closer to our goals every day, and that's fine. By scarcity, I don't mean just a limited amount of money, hours, or technology, but something deeper that can be really annoying. I've seen this in different startup situations where it turns people against each other as they scramble to secure resources. That's something you want to avoid.

How have you cultivated your network and relationships over time?

Well, I think I was really lucky. I was fortunate to have great mentors very early on who showed me how to build a network. It involves the ability to love people, I guess. With a 9:00 to 5:00 mentality, that's really difficult to do. It's very time-consuming and resource-consuming to care about people in a business context as well. You need to spend time on that, mostly in situations when it doesn't fit your agenda. I think it's really helpful to be curious, which I think you can practice. Understanding what drives the person on the other side of the screen, or why they are looking sad today, is important. That's why I'm so interested in helping startups and mentoring entrepreneurs. It's not just about reading great books about Silicon Valley heroes and how they grew their multibillion-dollar companies. The likelihood of that happening to you is relatively limited in ed tech, I would say.

✨ Pearl of wisdomBut really caring about people is something you can learn by just going to the next coffee shop and observing what's going on there. Building a network and connecting with people—even if it's not immediately beneficial—can be valuable over time.

I meet many people at book fairs or conferences who are new to the field, but their questions make me think, "That's an interesting approach. Why not?" I've been lecturing at Humboldt University in Berlin for 12 years, and I see that librarians' questions change every year. Sometimes they ask things that take me a weekend to figure out because I don't have an immediate answer. It really makes me curious.

Where do you see the academic and scholarly publishing market going in, say, five years?

I think it will become much more of a service-driven industry than a content-driven one. I've said this for the past five years, and it hasn't happened to the extent I expected, so maybe I'm wrong. But I see it moving in that direction, based on conversations with experts in mergers and acquisitions and so on. There seems to be a certain loss of value in content, while publication services are growing. These services help researchers improve their outreach and impact.

If you look at AI and training models, that might be a counter-argument because publishers are discussing opening their content repositories to train AI systems. I think that will have a short-term effect. Once the systems are trained, they will likely provide services and create more content. But in principle, AI represents a shift where the focus on your question is more important than the focus on my article.

✨ Pearl of wisdom We're moving towards a consumer-driven or demand-driven model rather than a supply-driven one. In academic publishing, the question will be whether people still want content composed in an article or book format, or if they just need a pile of data for machines to process and extract the most important elements for specific questions.

What advice would you give to yourself as a 20-year-old today?

When I started studying in 1993, shortly after German reunification and during an economic downturn, everyone told me, "Why study political science? It's the end of history." They suggested I get a taxi driver license instead. I didn't follow that advice because I would have been an awful, and bored, taxi driver. Looking at impressive young entrepreneurs in their late 20s and 30s, I say, "Just do it." There's no predictability, but if you like something, you will excel at it.

The problem is finding what drives you. Conversations with my own kids reveal how hard it is to find that North Star. It's important to know what you're good at and what you like to do, then develop from there without overthinking. Self-help books and advice resources might not be the right approach. It's more important to find out what you're good at and what you enjoy than to follow advice from others.

I always had an idea of what I wanted to do, writing for newspapers and such. It felt like a mini-job early on. No one asked me, "What do you want to do?" My son, now 17, often gets annoyed when I ask him that question repeatedly. It's better than pushing him into something like becoming a butcher, which wouldn't help either.

When I joined Bertelsmann, the process was very selective. They took the top 0.5% of applicants and constantly reminded us how gratified we should be to be part of this cohort. Some couldn't handle the high stress levels and felt like failures. I survived that environment, but I never felt like I would fail even if I dropped out. If you have made these experiences yourself, getting fired in my early 40s taught me that life goes on and gets better, not worse.

What tasks do you hesitate to delegate as a leader?

I would say acute problems. I find it difficult to tell my team, "This is your problem," even if it is their job to solve something. I am too much of a carer in that respect.

✨ Pearl of wisdom What I'm really genuinely interested in isn't problems but personal relationships and human relations. I think that's not something you can delegate. Even in systems where I worked with an assistant or two, there are some things you have to do yourself. If you have new team members or job starters coming to the office for the first day, you, as the boss, should be there to say, "Hi, good to have you. Let's have a coffee," even if it's only for 15 minutes. I would not delegate that, even if there are structures for it.

You've worked with a lot of entrepreneurs and founders. What are the challenges they need to keep in mind as they move from a true startup to more of a scale-up phase?

✨ Pearl of wisdomA proper understanding of the market is essential. I get a lot of unsolicited requests for funding as an angel investor where people pitch the flavor of the day. It was blockchain a while ago. Now, everything is AI-based, and there's so much BS in that. I keep telling people, "This might all be great. Good luck. I don't get it. You need to find somebody who really understands it."

That's what I would recommend when looking for funding, especially in the growth phase. It's okay to validate a business case on a small scale, but when you move from the lab to the real world, you need to see if it survives under non-lab conditions.

I would always surround myself with a network of people who give you true and sound feedback, even if it is painful and hurts. That's the external component. You need people who challenge you not just on numbers in an Excel sheet. When someone asks me about investing as an angel investor, I rarely look at Excel sheets because I know the cruelties you can do to Excel. It's really about the founders in the end. Internally, within yourself, you need to find a place where you can calm down, where you are with yourself and not constantly on stage and showing off.

Secondly, don't believe your own propaganda. Don't lose the ability to be honest with yourself and with people around you, like close friends, and say, "This is not working. What am I doing now?" I've seen people burn a lot of money in startups, knowing that it wouldn't work, but they continued because it was the equity story or the investor approach. If you're honest with yourself, this doesn't happen and shouldn't happen.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
What's more important to you, Ed or Tech?
Well, I think it's really two sides of the same coin, right? But in the end, it's about Ed. Tech is just a means to an end, and the end is education and a better understanding of the world. We have seen over the last few years that we have enough problems to tackle. In the end, it's about Ed, and tech is the tool.

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